Bullying In The Workplace
Unless you’re just now entering the world of the living, you’ve heard of bullying. If you’re like most people when you hear the word “bully” you probably think back to your time spent on the playground, either at school or in your neighborhood, if not both. Or you may think of the group of girls in junior high or high school that made life miserable for you (c’mon, you know the ones… I bet their names and/or faces even popped into your head while reading this, didn’t they?). My point is, at some point in our lives, we have all faced bullies. Truth is, we’ve all fallen into one camp or the other; we were either the bullies or the bullied. That’s not something to be proud of, but at least one is more excusable than the other, right? After all, we were just stupid kids, right? Unfortunately, no.
Unfortunately that behavior, and those roles, don’t always end when we leave the cocoon that is our childhood educational system. A Forbes article by Christine Comaford shows that 75% of workers are affected by bullying (available here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecomaford/2016/08/27/the-enormous-toll-workplace-bullying-takes-on-your-bottom-line/#47241dde5595). Seventy-five percent! A more recent Forbes article by Dr. Pragya Agarwal states that nearly 60% of workers are affected by it (available here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/pragyaagarwaleurope/2018/07/29/workplace-bullying-here-is-why-we-need-to-talk-about-bullying-in-the-work-place/#495428713259).
No matter whether the percentage is close to 60 or up to 75, it is clear that we have a bullying problem in the workplace.
So what allows for workplace bullying to be so pervasive? Well, for one, the tell-tale signs of bullying aren’t always as recognizable as they were on the playground. Bullies typically know how to operate within the confines of organizational policy and procedure, allowing their tactics to go unnoticed (or worse, management knows and turns a blind eye).
Another complication is that bullying in the workplace can be difficult to define. For example, in Dr. Agarwal’s article for Forbes, ACAS defines workplace bullying as, “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the person being bullied.” SHRM (read more here: https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/legal-and-compliance/state-and-local-updates/pages/workplace-bullying.aspx) defines bullying in the workplace as, “unwelcome behavior that occurs over a period of time and is meant to harm someone who feels powerless to respond.” Yet another definition by The Workplace Bullying Institute states that, “workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating or intimidating, or work interference -- sabotage -- which prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse.” (You can read more here: https://www.workplacebullying.org/individuals/problem/definition/)
I can tell you that I was bullied by a former boss of mine. When I faced bullying, I had a difficult time understanding what was happening. In fact, the idea of bullying never crossed my mind. This was my first real “grown up” job after college, I was green, and eager to try and prove myself. I thought that I had performance issues, that I really could not perform the duties of my job satisfactorily. I felt stupid, and ashamed, and my imposter syndrome was in full swing during this time. How could I have possibly made it through my undergraduate degree, and now working to complete my masters degree, if I can’t even perform the most basic of administrative duties? I legitimately thought and felt that I was wholly incompetent and would never be able to find gainful employment elsewhere. The twisted part? I was grateful to this person for trying to help me better myself!
This went on for nearly a year, before I mustered up the courage to try and start building my case against my boss. It took another 9 months of documenting her treatment of me and speaking with management regarding her behavior (twice) before anything was done about it. The last straw for my employers? When the manager of another location called to tell my new department head (who oversaw the human resources department and whom the director of HR reported to) that I was leaving and going to work for him. Only at that point did the organization really open their eyes and want to know what was going on; why did I want to leave? So I told them everything. I had emails to back up what I was saying, I was able to defend my position during the investigation in which corporate spoke to myself, and others who had dealings with my boss. It should have been telling that I was the 7th person to sit in that chair in approximately 2.5 years since she had been hired. Management’s tendency to “pass the buck” aside, everyone knew that there were issues surrounding this person and no one did anything about it. Workplace investigations are tough enough, but especially when your allegations are against the director of human resources!
So what did it for me? Things weren’t adding up. Her actions and her words didn’t match. I’m not talking about hypocrisy here. I’m talking about her saying I was the best assistant she’d ever had, and then turning around and telling her boss about all the mistakes I was making. She made me doubt myself. Did she really tell me to do this project and I forgot? Did she really tell me she wanted it done this way, and I did the opposite? The answers were no. The things she was telling our department head that I failed to do, were things she was instructed to do and failed at. The things I did that were supposedly the opposite of what she had said she wanted, were in fact exactly how she told me she wanted it done.
I will say that she was a master manipulator and she talked a good game. Ultimately hubris was her downfall. She underestimated me. She underestimated my abilities to perform the job; she underestimated my ability to figure out what she was doing; and she underestimated my ability to do anything about it. The investigation wasn’t my first choice. In fact, I wanted to leave the situation entirely. The opportunity to avoid conflict had presented itself as the opportunity to work with someone I absolutely revered. Unfortunately, even after my intention to transfer locations was made, she still wasn’t done. Only this time instead of bullying, she was showering me with praise while trying to make backdoor deals with others to block my transfer.
Through all of this though, it still wasn’t apparent to me that it was workplace bullying. Not during that time anyway. I have since learned that it was, and her behavior could be the textbook definition of workplace bullying. The intentional sabotaging of me, my reputation, and my work fulfilled in her a need to be seen as the best. She could not stand for someone to come in and be seen as operating at the same level that she perceived herself to be at.
If you’re an employer, you need to be aware of what’s going on within your organization. There are federal and state laws that prohibit bullying based on protected classes (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964).
I want to end this blog post saying that if you feel you’re currently being bullied at work, know that you are not alone, and there are (proper) courses of action you can take. Know that a safe workplace is not only a benefit, it’s a right.
As always, thank you for your time.